New Consul General Arrives in Chicago:
Interview with Naoki Ito
• Naoki Ito, who assumed the position as Consul General of Japan in Chicago late February, has been a career diplomat since 1984. Born in November 1960 in Tokyo, Ito joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs upon graduation from the prestigious Tokyo University’s Department of Law.
• Q: Why did you choose a career with the Foreign Ministry?
• Ito: While in college, I traveled overseas for the first time in my life; I went to Singapore, took the train and bus to Malaysia and Thailand, and then stopped in Hong Kong before coming home. It was 1980, and Southeast Asia back then wasn’t like what it is today at all – World War II was still casting its shadow on its relationship with Japan. As I saw with my own eyes how Japan was viewed by the people there, I started to think that it would be interesting to have a career in foreign relations, specifically with Asia. That’s one of the reasons why I chose to work for the Foreign Ministry.
• Q: You also studied at Cambridge University.
• Ito: The Ministry sent me there, to study
international law and international relations for two years. After that, I
was assigned to the Japanese Embassy in London for almost two years.
• Q: Then you went back to the Japanese Embassy in London again from 2011 to 2014, this time as the Minister. How did things change?
• Ito: Unfortunately, relatively speaking,
I think the U.K.’s international standing has gone down. I think that the
U.K. government still maintains the belief that the country’s international
presence is enhanced by getting along well with the United States.
• While I was there, the Emperor and Empress
of Japan came to visit for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. There were
coincidentally the Olympic Games. It was interesting to observe the British
diplomacy at work, using the Games as “soft power,” as well as the way the
Games were carried out as collaborative events by the government and citizen
• The summit made me consider a plan to establish a new economic tie with Northern Ireland, so I solicited cooperation from Japanese business people in London. There were about five Japanese companies that had invested in Northern Ireland then, but not many business people were visiting there. So I asked people from the Japan Chamber of Commerce in London to visit Northern Ireland, along with the Japanese Ambassador, to evaluate the investment potential. That didn’t immediately lead to any new investment, but after that the prime minister of Northern Ireland visited Japan.
• Q: What do you think of the Japan-U.K. relationship today?
• Ito: I think it’s a very mature relationship.
The current focus is on national security. The so-called “2 plus 2” talks,
between the foreign minister and the defense minister from each side, have
begun, so the mutual cooperation structure is being constructed rapidly.
• Also, I think the food over there has improved a lot in the past 30 years. They might want to be out of the EU because they believe that immigrants are taking away jobs from them, the fact is that the British cuisine has gained a great variety thanks to the immigrants. The choice used to be either fish and chips that you could get from street vendors, or Indian food or Chinese food. Now there’s more variety, more competition, and the food has become much tastier overall. The number of Japanese restaurants also increased. When a country is open to immigrants, it gains diversity, and that enriches one’s life. I feel it’s a shame to throw that away by getting out of the EU.
• Q: Let me go back to 1999 - you were working at the Embassy in Myanmar then.
• Ito: That’s a wonderful country with a
lot of growth potential. Back then it was more “closed” under the military
regime and there were a lot of restrictions. The average per capita income
was around $100, and not many countries were providing aid – perhaps Japan
was the only country that was engaged in bilateral assistance at that time.
• Q: Then, in 2001, you were assigned to the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations in New York.
• Ito: Yes, I arrived there at the end of August 2001. When I was looking for a place to live, the 9-11 terrorist attacks struck. I hurried to my office and there I was informed that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center building.
• That was the opening day of the UN General
Assembly. During the opening ceremony, they usually ring the “Peace Bell,”
a gift from Japan. There were the Japanese ambassador and guests from Japan,
along with the UN Secretary General, for the ceremony.
• Q: What did you do after that?
• Ito: I assisted in overall operation of
the UN General Assembly. The counter terrorism measures and how to coordinate
a broad international cooperation were the heavily discussed topic. At the
opening of the new century, people were thinking a lot about international
cooperation and multilateralism. We also discussed the issues of reforming
the UN to keep itself up to date and boosting the UN finance as well.
• Q: In June 2003, you assumed the position of Director, Second Southeast Asia Division of the Foreign Ministry, and then Director, Northeast Asia Division (Korean Peninsula) in December that year. Shortly after that, in May 2004, Prime Minister Koizumi made a visit to North Korea, which made a big push in the abduction [of Japanese citizens by North Korea] issue. What can you tell us about it?
• Ito: I accompanied Mr. Koizumi on his second
North Korea visit (in 2004). This visit resulted in the return of some of
the Japanese abductees, including the children of the Chimura family and the
Hasuike family. Normally, when a prime minister travels abroad, the party
uses two planes, the second one being an extra for contingencies. After the
visit, we brought the released abductees with us back home, using the extra
plane. We were pretty nervous.
• Q: Did you directly negotiate with the North Korean government?
• Ito: They are such a difficult negotiation
counterpart. At that time, the Six-Party Talks [among South Korea, North Korea,
Japan, the U.S., China and Russia] were being held; Mr. Koizumi visited North
Korea while those talks were going on. That meant that we could directly talk
to North Korea in the talks and move things step by step.
• Q: Can the abduction issue be solved?
• Ito: The Japanese government must move with determination for the release of all the surviving abductees. That is a highly critical issue to clear in our relationship with North Korea. It is absolutely necessary for us to work for a comprehensive solution for the abduction issue, nuclear weapons issue, and missile issue.
• Q: You were with the Foreign Ministry’s International Cooperation Bureau in 2006 as Director of the Strategic Planning Division. What were you responsible for?
• Ito: The International Cooperation Bureau is charged with formulating international aid policies. Then the JICA will carry them out. I was responsible for proposing ODA (Official Development Assistance) policies and strategies. I was also involved in the 2008 G-8 Summit in Toyako, Hokkaido, as well as the Tokyo International Conference on African Development.
• Q: Is Japan actively supporting the developing countries?
• Ito: Well, we were once the world’s top
aid provider. Now we are No. 4 or No. 5 in the world.
• Q: You were the Minister at the Embassy of Japan in India from 2008 to 2011. How did you like it there?
• Ito: The living environment in India is
not easy, and its people and religions are so diverse.
• Infrastructure in India has yet to be improved further. In the residential area in Delhi where I lived, we had tap water available only for two hours in the morning and afternoon each. So we had to save water in the tank in the basement, and when it ran short, we would buy water from the water truck that would come around. So water supply, road conditions, and the power supply – those were an issue.
• Human behaviors and habits are quite different from one nation to another, and the differences affect our way of social interaction. It’s important that we understand cultural differences, particularly when we are to live in that country and do business there. Such understanding also helps us enjoy our living in that country.
• Speaking of enjoying living in a foreign
country, I believe that it makes a huge difference whether or not you can
find any local food that you really love.
• Q: The East Japan Great Earthquake hit Japan while you were assigned to India.
• Ito: I was in Christchurch, New Zealand
when that happened – helping the staff there after the earthquake hit the
city in February that year (28 Japanese citizens were among the victims).
• Q: I understand that you are fluent in English. What is your method of English learning?
• Ito: Nothing special – perhaps studying
at a British university was a big help. And I have always read the newspaper
sports page in order to learn new vocabulary.
• Q: Do you have hobbies?
• Ito: I played soccer and football when
I was in college. I also play golf on my overseas assignment, wherever I can.
• Q: Lastly, please tell us what you’d hope to achieve while you are in Chicago.
• Ito: I believe it’s my utmost duty to do
my best to serve the approximately 33,000 Japanese residents within the 10
states in our jurisdiction, to assure their safety and security.
• Q: Thank you very much.
Naoki Ito, Consul General of Japan in Chicago